Opium Poppy (Papaver somiferum) is one of the most widely used medicinal plants in the world and has a very interesting history. opium, the sap that oozes from the plant when cut, was widely used in Chinese culture as a hedonistic ritual to an extend that is comparable to beer drinking in Europe nowadays.
The opium wars between England and China were actually initiated because the English people got addicted to Chinese tea and were searching for something to trade for as their treasury quickly ran out of silver coins. They started cultivating and trading opium from colonial India and as the Chinese people got addicted to opium, they drained their treasury. There was an event quite similar to the Boston Tea Party, where twenty thousand chests of opium were thrown in the sea and several trade ships and warehouses were set on fire. This incident and other attempts to prohibit opium import into China resulted in the opium wars.
The peak of opium import into China reached 6.500 tons in 1880, at which time Britain was exporting around 50.000 tons of tea. After the legalization of opium in China after the second opium war, large areas in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan were dedicated to opium cultivation so that China was producing 22.000 tons of opium in 1900. Also the British had discovered wild tea plants growing in the mountain regions of Assam and Darjeeling in India and after stealing productive hybrids from China in the 1890s, started cultivating tea in those regions.
During the 1920s and 1930s, opium smoking got "hip" in USA's art and music underworld. "Hip" and the later derived words "hippie" and "hipster" actually come from that era and indicate the position of laying on ones hip when smoking opium.
Opium poppy is an annual plant which makes a lot of seeds and normally self-seeds quite reliably. If starting opium poppies from seed, the seeds should be sown in early spring or even earlier, as they start growing early in the season. Also poppies don't like to be transplanted at all. Once a patch is established, they tend to come back every year. They can be found in many front gardens with the sole intention of an ornamental plant as they make beautiful, showy flowers in different colors. There are many ornamental cultivars which have an abundance of layers of petals which can definitely compete with ornamental rose cultivars. Bees love the flowers and it is easy to find one or several bees in the jungle of stamens.
After the last petals fall off, it takes about one to two weeks until the seed pods are at their maximum of sap content. The seed pods turn from a green color to a blue-gray color in that period. Another way to tell the readiness for opium harvest is to wait until the ring, which attaches the seed pod to the stalk turn from a bright green color to a grayish color.
The sap is harvested from the seed pod by scratching the outer skin with a sharp knife. The scratch should not be too deep, as the sap then flows into the seed pod and is lost. Diagonal cuts are better than vertical cuts in preventing the sap from dropping down. The scratching should be done one a day and night withour rain, as the water soluable sap can easily be washed away by rain. The sap dries on the seed pod over night and can be harvested by scraping it off the next morning. The resulting substance is called raw opium and can be further processed into other morphines.
Another way to get the medicine out of the poppy plant is to make opium tea. The tea can then be cooked down until a sticky substance, like raw opium, stays on the bottom of the pot. Adding a table spoon of lemon juice helps to make the opiates more soluable. Turning off the flame at the right moment is crucial, as this can easily start to get burned.